November 6, 2013

Dreams raised, along with banners

The last time Michigan took to the basketball court in earnest, the Wolverines were in a football stadium jammed to the rafters, with millions more around the nation watching on television. That's heady stuff, for an incoming freshman.

On Friday night, John Beilein's crew will see a Final Four banner raised to the top of Crisler Arena, and reflect - if only for a moment - on last year. Then it's full bore towards what's ahead and guaranteed, the newest Wolverines will be thinking about possible great achievements of this team.

Freshmen point guard Derrick Walton, forward Zak Irvin and big man Mark Donnal are obviously anxious to get going. Donnal could redshirt, but Walton and Irvin will be as crucial to this crew's effort as U-M's handful of freshmen were last year.

The newcomers know the standard that has been set.

"They know what it takes to get there," Irvin said of his teammates. "They obviously got there last year. We're just getting better day by day."

"To know they did something very special last year, coming in as a freshman, I'm excited to try and do that again this year," Walton added.

Both will considerably ease the pain from the loss of 2012-13 consensus national Player of the Year Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr., both of whom left for the NBA with eligibility remaining.

Walton has already shown himself a quick and capable point guard, who can defend and distribute. He managed eight assists against just three turnovers in Michigan's two exhibition games, while coming up with three steals.

Walton also demonstrated an ability to score, averaging 9.0 points (including a 3-for-7 effort on three-pointers) while giving up a couple of obvious breakaway layups to unselfishly drop a ball back to a teammate.

U-M coach John Beilein loves the point guard possibilities right now, with both Walton and sophomore Spike Albrecht, who has been showing the rookie the ropes, how to think two moves ahead, etc. Sophomore Nik Stauskas, who averaged 20.0 points in the exhibition games, appreciates both.

"It's definitely a great luxury to have," Stauskas said. "Both of them are really smart point guards. They play with their head first. Both of them are making good passes, good decisions out there, low turnover rate. I really enjoy playing with both of them. They always have their head up and they're always looking."

Meanwhile, Walton looks around and sees a host of scoring options, the sort that make a distributor's eyes light up.

"It's a point guard's dream to have shooters, a very athletic guy like Glenn [Robinson], a great shooter in Stauskas," Walton said. "It's easy to get in the lane and kick it out to one of those guys."

The Wolverines kicked it to Irvin a few times against Wayne State, and the rookie responded with three three-pointers in a row. The player one close observer called "Tim Hardaway 2.0" wound up 4-for-7 from three and 9-for-15 overall in the exhibitions.

"It felt great to be able to go out there and knock down shots," Irvin said. "My teammates were able to find me. We're just a very dangerous team. We're balanced, and that speaks well for our team."

And they'll get better. Sophomore Mitch McGary, the glue for Michigan's NCAA Tournament run last year, has yet to see the floor due to his back rehabilitation. And Stauskas remembers how much better the frosh grew last year, as the season went along.

"You'll see that, as the games go on, they'll get more comfortable," Stauskas said of the freshmen. "Just like last year with our freshmen, as the games went on, we started getting more comfortable. They've been working really hard in practice, listening to everything Coach has to say, and it's showing in their games."

It may not show in another Final Four. But on a banner-raising opening night, you can bet there will be more than a few such thoughts floating around.

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